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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Surviving Avalanches - Cory Richards, Alive Day / Diagnosis Day, Big the Musical, and Wishing for Younger Days

          Cory Richards is a mountain climber and an adventure photographer, who was also the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. He has definitely had lots of extreme experiences with the wild and the life-altering, especially a 2011 trip to Gasherbrum II in 2011, when an avalanche hit him and his two companions like a “freight train.” All of them survived, but they were dramatically changed by that one moment of their life, which wracked  his entire life from then on out. 
            Just like in the military, when a person is severely injured, but is saved, this would have been his Alive Day. There is a great documentary with James Gandolfini, which is available, or you can watch this short video to understand the concept. Of the people in Alive Day Memories, my favorite was the story of Bryan Anderson, though they were all powerful.
            For Richards, after regaining where and who he was in that moment of "how the hell am I not dead," Richards took a selfie (it's at the top). In the moment when his fellow climber dug him out from under the snow and ice, he felt he looked like an old man. What had previously been the first successful climb of an 8,000-meter peak in winter by an American was now a catastrophe of legendary proportions for 3 men who desperately needed to get back to safety.
            However, it was also a lot of other things since it was also Richards’ introduction to post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that would affect his entire life from then on out. If you're interested in learning more about this, check out Laurence Gonzales's Surviving Survival book. It is that good.
            This nightmare condition would lead him back into facing his own demons, the beasts he was trying to escape from his entire life, by taking part in these high-octane pursuits. As PTSD raged inside of him, depression, divorce, alcoholism, and loss of purpose all affected his life, but somehow, he found a way to navigate through his present by taking steps to figure out his past, present, and future.
            I had never heard of Richards before I read his story in Outside Magazine this month. When I got through the story (on newsstands now), I felt blown away by the power of his life story (available as 3 clips starting here - they take about an hour, but they're worth it). The thought of how a person can look at him or herself and say, “I should have died” / “I’m not the same anymore” / “I don’t recognize this person staring back at me” / “I’ve got this thing inside me, which is just like death because it’s crawling around and trying to kill me and I can't get rid of it” is incredibly human and fragile, no matter who we are, but to try not to be broken and to not hurt anymore, well, that takes something more, and that frail nature is exhibited clearly in the video. 
            I should also say that despite the climbing world's usual bravado, Richards feels very approachable and vulnerable. I really liked this in all that I've seen of him.  

            As I’ve said before, I’m very interested in stories of accomplishment and survival as well as stoic philosophy (since they're what I want for me). There’s something very empowering about recognizing that we have been handed a role (like Epictetus said) and have to play it to the best of our ability. We alone make our choices to drive ourselves to the peak of our journey or not.

            I don’t believe that we always do it alone. We do have the option to choose our teams, and with the universe in the right place, we will find strong people to help motivate and carry us through to strength that we can get up again. If we don’t have these people, being a solitary man is a long journey not worth taking (see John Donne).
            I also should say that I do believe that the universe provides fail safe methods that allow us to get out of situations. We may not like them, but they’re there, and for the humble pie we’ll need to eat or the 3 steps back we might have to take when the poop hits the fan or we mess up, we can eventually find a way to move ahead 4 steps over time. The key is that we recognize these things as they come and don't give in to them. Here, I think of a story told to me by a person about his son who got out of jail and was picked up by a priest who wanted to give him an apartment, job, and a key to a new life, but the son refused. Which part of that moment doesn't show divine intervention to be in a better place?
            I guess for some people, it's all about going on their own journey until they find the next moment of clarity that appeals to them... maybe Player's club, an attractive spouse, more money than Rockefeller, and international fame instantly. 
            Finally, I acknowledge that education and mental preparedness in temperament and ability is the best thing that we can do for when our own avalanches hit. We probably won’t get caught in an avalanche unless we decide to do winter hiking or climbing, but we will definitely find a train barreling down the tracks to mess us up at some point in our lives. Loved ones will get sick and die. Jobs will come and go. We will get old, and with that, we won’t be able to do what we used to do, even if we don’t develop conditions like what afflict many of us. It's just a part of life. Natural disasters will take place. People will mess with us, either intentionally or unintentionally. Systems that operate in chaos will break down in the fraction of error moments. Some days, we’ll be in the money, and some days, we’ll need a new dishwasher, so there goes the vacation money.

            For people with Parkinson’s and other conditions, we have faced the moment of discovery. Like people who hear the C word in a diagnosis, there is a moment of clarity that a huge sheet of ice is crashing down on us or that a flash flood is about to leave the world under water. We have been given official notice that something is going on inside. And it’s going to get worse. And it’s going to change our life and the lives of all of those people that we know.
            What the heck do we now?
            One of my favorite posts in the groups that I’m involved with for Parkinson’s once did was a post on when, where, what was your first diagnosis of Parkinson’s. It was a very human and beautifully tragic expression of our shared experience played out in different ways, on different stages. To that, I ask what was your moment of official confirmation like?
            For me, I had been playing the part of a man on the path to what I thought was going to be surgery for my cervical spine issues. This was that “spondylosis” was the cause of my tremors, and it“definitely was not” Parkinson’s (I'm glad I was misdiagnosed; I wasn't ready for the real diagnosis in 2015). To get to another MRI, I had to go through the spinal surgery people who told me that I had to go to physical therapy first (since it was a year and a half after my first time in the box). However, at the first PT appointment, I had a therapist who said my tremors definitely weren’t caused by spondylosis. She couldn’t tell me what they were since she wasn’t a doctor, but she did get her doctor to refer me to a neurologist named Efrain Perez-Vargas. To this day, I'm very grateful for her forwardness. She changed my life. 
            On September 27, 2016, I sat in the sterile hospital room at Reading Hospital, complete with its disinfected hospital smell, sitting in a simple classroom type chair next to my wife waiting to do what I had to do to play the game that would allow me to do my surgery over Christmas break. I was sure this is how it was going to go down. This appointment was just a formality.
            I’m not an expert with a degree, but I knew. Yep. I knew.
            When Dr. Perez-Vargas came in, we did the motion checks, finger taps, walk, and other bodily functions, and then he asked me if I knew what was going on. I responded that I didn’t.
            “You have Parkinson’s. I’m 90% sure. We’re going to do an MRI and blood tests to find out for sure.”
            I sat frozen in place. I only knew that Parkinson’s was Michael J. Fox, Mohammed Ali, and tremors. I didn’t know anything else. Instantly, I wanted to google search what else it was, but before I could do that, my wife broke out in tears. I tried to comfort her, but it wasn’t easy. Why would it be? She knew more about what it was than me.
            As I sat there in my internal stare, holding onto her, the doctor said that I would be OK based on how I was handling it, which apparently meant I wasn't crying or freaking out, but rather taking it in. Other than that, I’m not sure how I was handling it. I was really just dumbfounded. I would have known the ramifications of the C word or many other conditions, but not this one.
            He went through the discussion about how this wasn’t a death sentence and how there were many medical treatments being looked into and already done. He also talked about how some Parkinson’s doesn’t advance as quickly ("vanilla," he called it), but that I should stay active and we would find out for sure when my results came on November 1, 2016, that this was what it was.
            At the time of the first appointment, I didn't get medicines because I wanted to be sure before I started. I can't say there was any more logic to it than that, but at the time, it made sense.
            As we left the office, I told my wife Heather that we would make it through this. We always do, no matter what happens in life. She was still teary-eyed, but she was better. From there, we went to my parents’ house to tell them what was most likely going on. They, too, didn’t know much, so I had to tell them what I had found out, and we went into the mode of, well, here we are, all straight-faced. Let’s go on. Over the next month, I would tell other family members and friends as well. It wasn't fun because everyone started to learn and ask, "What's going to happen to our son?"

            I took my wife back to her car so she could go home from the doctor’s (we had driven separately to get there since we both came from our jobs), and I told her that I would be teaching my class that night in abbreviated form (in about an hour and a half - too late to call off). However, when I got to the classroom, I was early enough that I had time to google Parkinson’s. I went straight to Michael J. Fox videos, and I saw his tremors and shakes, and I instantly shut the video off after contemplating my future with the shakes (not knowing he often purposely goes off meds when he's interviewed to show the effects of PD to help raise awareness).
            The heaviness of that moment was a shock to my system where I realized what was coming. Combined with discussions from the Mayo Clinic, I had an idea of what was going on, but I chose to look at the videos and articles in smaller doses at first. However, I would choose to learn a lot more over time. That night, I finally hit the wall, and I needed air, so when my students (all 6 of them in the class) came in, I told them that I had a really rough diagnosis at the doctor, and that I would have called off if I had more time, but that I would let them e-mail their essays for a complete look through before they turned them in. They were really great about it and very supportive over the term as I talked to them about what was going on. They definitely made the adjustment easier.
            I should say that as a teacher, sometimes, we think only of our problems, but in the last decade, that moment where they were that kind for me and this were my biggest successes (as were my other honors students). That's what I'm choosing to remember.
            From there, I went home, and I talked to my wife while watching Dodge Ball, which was a great choice. Laughter is an amazing thing, and I can honestly say that living with an approach that the negatives in life aren’t worth the time, especially if we don’t need them (arguments, for example), is the answer to the meaning of life. Life is about living, so choose to live life. Don't dwell on the haters (advice for myself, best followed if I write it down).
            With that, we went to sleep, and when I woke up, I decided that I would be an advocate for Parkinson’s if this was to be my fate. I told my wife, and from that point, I never looked back. I would empower and educate others and myself at the same time. It was the best decision I could make, and for this, I posted my first blog post on November 1, 2016, when I was “officially”-diagnosed, though I truly consider my diagnosis on that September day.

            Now, I find myself asking myself, “How did you survive that avalanche, Dan?” What was my facial expression the moment I swept off the snow and ice to realize I was still alive, before I realized just how hard I was hit? I know that the next morning, I had a feeling of peaceful acceptance, but how was I the previous night? What are my thoughts now that I know what all is preparing to go these next 10 rounds with me?
“I’m going to die after I suffer a lot?”
“I’m not the same Dan anymore?”
“I don’t recognize this person staring back at me?”
“I’ve got this thing inside me, which is just like death because it’s crawling around and trying to kill me and I can't get rid of it; help me?”
There are so many options. All of them bounce around inside all of us from time to time. It’s part of this beast, but we can hold them at bay with the other choices:
“How can I stay me as long as possible?”
“How can I enjoy my friends and family and let them see me for me as long as possible (be a person first)?”
“What can I do to make a difference for others?”
Things like that are what keeps me going as I shake off my avalanche and climb back up the snowy mountain to the top of the pile.

Nevertheless, I am well aware that I’m getting older and my body is changing to be someone new in this world I have found myself in (46 in a month). I thought about this when my wife and I went to see Big the Musical (based on the Tom Hanks movie). If you’ve never seen the movie, it’s a story about a kid who makes a wish to be big, and then it comes true. The rest of the musical deals with him being able to fit into being a vice president at a toy company (easy because he thinks about creating toys that kids will like from a kid’s perspective, but hard because he has to compete with a jerk while navigating an adult relationship with a woman who is very into him). Through it, he comes to enjoy being old until he realizes he doesn’t want to give up childhood, his family, and his best friend.

As usual, the Fulton Theater did a great job with it. For a local Lancaster, Pennsylvania, production, the sounds are good and even the child actors play their roles well. As it was performed during the day so that kids could see it, they brought young kids onstage to dance with the young part of the cast before the show started. Whoever wants to, groove on!

My wife got the tickets and we were in the lower level of the Abraham Lincoln seats, which put us directly stage left. Our view was good enough to see the microphones taped to the actors' foreheads. Let it be known, I am down with the Abraham Lincoln seats.

Somewhere in the reflections on the show, there is a feeling that if kids want to be old, then on the other side of the coin, adults want to be young (and while not a part of the musical, people with disabilities want to go back to a time when we didn't have them or to live like we never had them). There are glory days to be lived again or for the first time. With all of the nastiness inside of us from the hand life has dealt us, no matter who we are, we all want to go back to get a redo, whether complete or partial, so I thought to myself, “Where would you go back to if you could?” I found that to be an interesting question since there are definitely things to consider that keep it from being an easy choice, especially if this Parkinson's was always in me waiting to explode.

1)      If I go back to youth, then I have to through junior high school again. I’d rather swim in the shark lane than do that.
2)      If I go back to high school, then I have to deal with everyone going through puberty and all of those issues. Nope, it’s gotta be later than that because even if I'm magically transformed from Goofus to Gallant, I still have outside influences to contend with.
3)      The Air Force England years (18-24)? I wouldn’t have the life experience and (theoretical) wisdom that I have gained since then, although I would have Europe at my doorstep. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be going to see the things that jive with my older self, who would want to go over there to share them with my wife. Nope, it has to be later than that, even if I was younger, thinner, and healthier.
4)      The late twenties seem like a good time for the wisdom that I gained from the experiences I had prior to it, and I would still do many of the same things, but I would have definitely done many other things differently (like get a degree in Sabermetrics). However, I might not end up meeting my wife, so is it really worth it to disrupt the best parts of my universe on a wild card opportunity to feel the vitality of youth?
5)      The early thirties offer life wisdom, but they also offer the beginnings of the aging life. As soon as professional reality hits, there’s minimal fun due to job and / or family and / or commitments, so for the youthful vitality and lack of gray / white hairs, it becomes a choice of trade offs with a very limited time between. Also, while more of the money needed to do things is technically there, but time is the biggest constraint. Just like setting our own bedtimes as an adult, we realize that staying up until past midnight every night isn’t a possibility, and neither is cashing big checks to spend on frivolous wants and have to haves. We need life moderation, and this is a time it really needs to be figured out by.

So what’s the answer when we’re coming out of the avalanche and trying to make sense of what we have with what we want from life and where our future is and isn't and will never be headed? If we’re sitting here in the uncertainty of “how long until the rug gets pulled out from under me (i.e. if we're waiting for the inievitable avalanche),” we know we're wasting time, but how can we get away from what seems so inevitable when it's such a powerful thought in our heads? If we took the hit and ended up on our feet, how do we reconcile all the mistakes we’ve made and the times we’ve wasted to enjoy what we've got where we stand? Fretting over wasted time is such a Dostoevsky thing anyway. 
Looking at it in this way, Josh Baskin (the Hanks character) has it so easy because he gets to live out the whole thing and make his way through to discover all of the great things (and character building mistakes) for the first time. Besides, all he wants is to be big enough to ride the rides, drive a car to impress a girl he really likes, and to do the other things he wants to do in a "relatively carefree" life (though as we all know, pressures like these do affect kids just as much as adult pressures affect our "ancient" lives). In the same way, Dan the Parkie wants the time to still be able to do the things that make him who he is before his dopamine supply ends. He wants to do as many of them as he can like he used to, while he comfortably / awkwardly / uncomfortably makes peace with his past on what he can’t do or what he does a lot differently (a personal soul searching effort to accept what I can't change - either via the Serenity Prayer or Epictetus).
You'd be surprised what you can accept that you can't do without crossing personal scum lines when it means being alive, happy, and relatively healthy with positive people around you. My midlife crisis at age 39-41 was hell, but since that time, I've made peace with the aging process and who I am. I'd rather sit and purr than obsess and go negative, at least when I can control it.

This is the new normal where the first step is to stare in the mirror and hope the guy in the mirror isn’t covered in snow and ice. After that, he can go look for a beach to enjoy the calm tranquil waters of life. In the meantime, I just need to take the pieces of my story and make them into a cohesive take away line for the audience I am speaking to, even if I’m the only one listening.

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